Xavier had to admit that when he’d proposed a leash for Vergeron’s pet A.I. he hadn’t been sure exactly how to construct such a structure. Luckily, both the government and Vergeron, or, more specifically Cain Westbrook, supported the idea wholeheartedly and with the C.E.O. of one of the world’s foremost corporate powers on board Xavier found himself with access to some of the globe’s top software engineers and digital security specialists.
Xavier had attended a flurry of meetings over the past few days to get specifications for the new software locked down. The government understandably wanted to make sure Alice was kept firmly out of their intelligence with the option to let her frolic through the networks of their adversaries, though this was never explicitly stated. Cain Westbrook’s asks were even simpler, he just wanted Alice’s cage gilded with enough assurances that interested parties would pay for her services when she met their specifications.
This left Xavier with wiggle room to attain his own goals, namely securing himself access to Alice through a backdoor. It was a simple enough pitch. He wanted a channel open specifically for testing. Something that could be used for quality assurance as the interface was implemented. Xavier had no intention of letting his own actions become public, so the team agreed to encrypt his activity. In his capacity as a government official on the project, this was an easy ask, and the dev team hadn’t so much as blinked at his request. As an additional security feature, no one was allowed to ask Alice where the data had come from, with the exception of a few sources that had been pre-approved for debugging. They were all seasoned veterans and Xavier didn’t need his power to suss out that these people were used to a level of confidentiality he found admirable, one would even say cult worthy.
“Alright, Cecile Wong said, an A.I. and deep learning specialist, she nodded and put up another spec necessity on the smart-board so everyone in the room could properly see, “is that the last of it or does anybody else have something to contribute?”
Xavier glanced around the room and found the team to be shaking their heads. He looked once more at the board and was more than satisfied with what he saw there. Thanks to Cain the team had read access to the Alice source code repositories, as well as the ability to silently replace compiled components with their own variants, something that wasn’t likely to be discovered if the injected libraries didn’t throw any obvious errors. This was a secret they probably couldn’t maintain forever, but was suitable for the time being. Not all of Alice was created by humans. Some had been procedurally generated using things like neural networks and genetic algorithms, code that was strangely organized and poorly commented, obfuscated almost beyond recognition. It wasn’t even clear which sections of the code were in use. Dissecting it was going to take time. In the short term though they had found a potential exploit, a poor decision common among amateur programmers and likely an artifact from the early days of the project when Benjamin Whitechapel was working alone. While Alice could spawn a large number of data collection processes, the final results were refined in a single aggregator. It was a bottleneck in the system, an easy place to wrest control. Aside from Alice’s nearly impenetrable design, the team had one other mystery to solve. Exactly how big was Alice? Where did she run? How many processes could she spawn? In response to this question a strangely creative solution had been proposed. If a query was in danger of breaking into a place it wasn’t welcome, said query could be redirected such that Alice would instead query her own internal data store. This would have one of two effects: either return data Alice already had, or recursively search until the operation timed out. The data would be fuzzed a little along the way, to make it less obvious where it had come from. The strategy was to create the illusion that everything was working correctly, that Alice was continuing to pull data from the same places as before in hopes that no one would discover the problem and attempt to circumvent it. And, since Alice was performing the tasks herself, it could grow in parallel with her as she expanded, eliminating the short term need to identify and match her resources. It wasn’t entirely clear if the idea would work, but it was the favorite of all solutions proposed and could be implemented with some immediacy.
Cecile gave a nod.
“Good, now comes what I’ve often found to be the most contentious part of most projects.” With a few deft keystrokes Cecile put one last thing up on the board. Xavier couldn’t help but smile seeing the simple word ‘name’ appear in front of them. “What do we call this?”
“Well, it is something of a prison.” One of the software engineers, Josh Stein chimed in. “Maybe San Quentin, or Alcatraz?”
“Really though it’s more of a limiter than a full on containment system.” This came from the neural network specialist, Alex Parsons. “Perhaps something like Custodian or Curator would be more appropriate...”
This went on for some time. Everybody at the table seemed to have an opinion and Cecile appeared content in letting them have at it, silently putting the suggestions up on the board.
Xavier gave a snort and everyone turned to look at him.
“Sorry, I just realized… she’s named Alice. I think we’d all be missing a trick if we didn’t call this Wonderland.” The general sounds of approval were interrupted by the repeated chiming of Xavier’s phone. He frowned at the device, seeing the name flash across the screen.
“Apologies, I have to take this.” Xavier quickly rose from his chair and took a few hurried steps out of the room before accepting the phone call.
“Archdeacon, to what do I owe the pleasure. Have you managed to find those documents I requested?”
“Ahh, well yes, but this is actually related to a separate matter.” The Archdeacon’s voice was more than a little strained. “I know you’re busy, but we have something to discuss face-to-face.”
“Oh,” Xavier said a little annoyed, “and what exactly is that?”
“Well, we have one of the congregation here with some information I think requires your immediate attention.” It was clear whatever this was about the Archdeacon didn’t want to discuss it over the phone. Xavier understood the precaution, but it made for inconvenient dealings.
“Fine. Head over to my office. I’ll meet you there.” Xavier ended the call with a frustrated tap and poked his head back into the conference room to bid a hasty farewell. His irritation diminished slightly seeing the name Wonderland on the board highlighted in green with its competitors struck through with an air of contentment having settled on the room.
The Archdeacon was waiting when Xavier arrived and the anxious manner Xavier had detected on the phone was all the more apparent now that he got a good look at the man, and the Archdeacon wasn’t alone.
If Xavier remembered his name correctly, Tom Alexander was standing beside the Archdeacon, appearing even more skittish than his clerical counterpart.
“Please, sit gentlemen.” Xavier said, gesturing to the chairs in front of his desk and swinging around the opposite side himself. With them all properly seated Xavier prompted the conversation.
“So, what is this all about?” Xavier was sure to adopt a soft, empathetic tone sensing that to come at this discussion too forcefully would only hamper a productive dialogue.
Tom glanced up from his hands to the Archdeacon, who inclined his head and gave the man a reassuring smile. Tom lifted his head and took a deep breath before beginning.
“Bishop,” Tom began, dipping his head reverently, “I came to report an incident today at New Covenant Church in Rathford.”
“I saw something about that earlier.” Xavier said, remembering the disturbance. “That the suburb of Rathford was now under forced quarantine. Hard to miss when something comes over the emergency broadcast system.”
Tom gave a nod. “Yes, well, I was there, you see. Me and my family are part of the New Covenant congregation.” Xavier couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at that and Tom stalled to clarify. “Oh, no sir, I’m not a believer, but my wife Clare is and there are fringe benefits. They have a great summer camp and after school program. Anyways,” Tom said, getting back on course, “I was at a potluck raising money for a camping trip for my daughter Jasmine when some of the congregation just…” Tom waved his hand around searching for a word, “turned.”
“Turned?” Xavier repeated with a questioning inflection. “Could you explain that for me, Tom?” The man looked apologetic and dove back in to give it another try.
“I don’t know, sir. They became savage, you know, like all the old zombie movies. Started grabbing and biting folks. Some...were…” Tom swallowed hard and Xavier thought the man might vomit,” were eating people^”
Silence fell on the office and Xavier leaned back in his chair, sharing a long look with the Archdeacon for a few seconds before Tom blurted on.
“I got out before the quarantine came down. I was just wondering...if there was anything our church could do for my family?” Tom was looking at Xavier with an expression of open and pleading supplication. “Please Bishop, if there’s any ritual of protection, some sacrifice that can be made to make sure they’re safe…”
“We’ll do everything we can, Tom.” Xavier said, and with the comforting words he reached out with his power. Often when offered placation there were moments of hesitation, of indecision where a person sat at a crossroads of whether to accept the appeasement or continue on worrying about whatever situation had them so off balance. Tom was such a person and Xavier made sure to guide him to a more comforting state of mind.
“Oh, thank you Bishop. Thank you.” Relief had taken the man and Xavier was glad to offer even this brief respite.
“You’re welcome Tom. For now I want you to head back to be with your family. They need you during this trying time. I have some things to discuss with the Archdeacon.”
Tom got up and bowed his head to both men, thanking them profusely before quickly making his way out of the office.
“Have you managed to recover any of the texts I asked for?” Xavier asked as the door closed behind Tom. “I wonder if they mention anything like this?”
The Archdeacon gave a nod. “I thought the same thing.”
Xavier brought his hands to his head and began massaging his temples. “The streets will run with rivers of the dead.” Xavier breathed, dropping his hands. “I never thought, even with all the boons granted by god, that I’d have to take such a phrase literally.”
“So you think as I do?” The Archdeacon asked. “That this is connected to the Apostle?”
“While I believe in coincidence Archdeacon, I never trust it. Yes, I think our guest specter is at the center of this. What progress have you made?”
The Archdeacon looked pained. “Well, I’ve managed to track down a piece of origin source material…”
“But,” Xavier sighed, sensing the Archdeacon’s apprehension.
“But… I can’t translate it. It’s in a language I don’t understand and I haven’t managed to contact anyone from the College of Scholars. Without the support of a dedicated expert…”
Xavier couldn’t help but scowl. “If this is related to the Apostle’s prophecy it has to connect back to some known text.”
The Archdeacon shook his head. “As far as I can tell the language is unique. It doesn’t help that the stone tablets themselves aren’t well preserved. Even if I knew the language, translation would be a time consuming affair. I can’t even say that what I have relates directly to your questions.”
“What exactly do you have?” Xavier asked, trying to picture what it was the Archdeacon found so daunting.
The Archdeacon pulled out his phone and with a few quick taps leaned forward in his chair to hand it to Xavier. It was a picture of a decayed stone tablet, the bottom corner of which was completely missing while the rest was covered in seemingly impossible small carvings. There were no obvious signs of punctuation, or any indication of individual words, and the symbols were arranged such that Xavier couldn’t even tell what orientation the stone was suppose to be in.
Xavier stood from his desk and handed the Archdeacon his phone. “I think it’s time to attack this head on.” Xavier motioned for the Archdeacon to stand and together they made their way to the door.
“Perhaps a direct approach will yield more answers.”
Xavier liked that his footfalls rang with a distinctive sharpness inside the cathedral. He felt that each step was a herald calling his arrival, voicing his frustration as he and the Archdeacon entered the space with fierce, purposeful strides.
The Apostle was there as he’d been for days, drifting in and out at his leisure, to sermonize and judge and be for all intents and purposes an unbearable, invasive nuisance.
“Everyone, please give the Apostle and I some privacy.” Xavier didn’t raise his voice, there was no need to. The walls of the space naturally echoed his command.
The Archdeacon’s movements were in lockstep with Xavier’s words as he swept through the pews as a shepherd, hustling the prayerful up and out. As the cathedral quickly drained of its few inhabitants, Xavier locked eyes with the Apostle and stared unflinchingly into those two burning coals in a sea of rotting cloth. The telltale reverberating clang of the doors shutting firmly behind the Archdeacon had not yet died when the Apostle decided to speak.
“It’s good to see you again, Bishop Bane.” The Apostle gilded forward and Xavier was hit with the stench of decay that clung to the inhuman wraith. “I was beginning to think you found my presence unseemly.”
“Yes,” Xavier said with a cruel smile, “one might think that.”
The Apostle chuckled with a dry rasping sound that grated against Xavier’s nerves and he redoubled his efforts to hold his temper in check.
“Despite what you might think Bishop Bane, I rather like you. You possess barring worthy of your station.” The Apostle spread his hands and swelled, the burning eyes flaring as Xavier starred up impassively at the writhing tangle of fluttering rags. “I am a force beyond your comprehension. I have rebuked you and your many failings, prophesied the consequence of your hubris, the fate of your dear city, yet you do not cow in the face of overwhelming superiority.” The Apostle shrank back, his eyes easing to their usual smolder. “These are desirable traits, though they would serve you much better if you weren’t so recalcitrant.”
“Your opinion of me is irrelevant, Apostle.” Xavier said with a cutting edge to his voice. “But decisions made that affect my congregation, those are very much worth discussing.”
“Ahh, I see.” The Apostle replied with maddening cheerfulness. “You’re here as the anxious protector. Well please,” he gestured in open entreatment for Xavier to continue. “What have I done to incur your misguided wrath?”
The conversation was not going well. Xavier had failed to draw the Apostle into a battle of insults and posturing, and something was wrong. His rage was ebbing. Almost like it was now the idea of having been angry in some past memory. Xavier had come to rebuke the Apostle, to fill him with a shared anger that Xavier had worked long to conceal, yet the Apostle stood with impunity, immune to his accusations and implications. The Apostle had come to this conversation as a teacher and Xavier was falling into the trap, into a passive stupor… something was very wrong.
Xavier made no visible reaction, but his gift extended forward in a wave, probing for the weakness of indecision at a speed beyond thought… and found nothing. The Apostle was just noise, like the static of a dead transmission.
“Rathford,” Xavier asked with impatience and bitterness, “were you responsible?”
The Apostle tilted his head. “Exactly what are you referring to, Bishop?”
“New Covenant Church, Apostle. Were you responsible?” Xavier’s voice vibrated with muted rage.
“Hmm, indirectly, I suppose. Old Town was the beginning.” The Apostle replied. “It’s all part of the groundwork, Bishop. Your sect is the Prophet’s instrument. They carry with them the seeds of cleansing.”
“You infected my congregation, didn’t you?” Xavier said, his fists clenching. “Just a delivery system for your damn plague?”
To Xavier’s surprise the Apostle was shaking his head.
“No Bishop, I did not seed your flock. All children of the One True God carry within them the potential to sow chaos and turn humanity to the purpose of the Prophets.”
Xavier felt the blood drain from his face. “You… you mean we’re all infected?”
The doors of the cathedral banged open and Xavier turned to see Lilith, bloody and bruised, stumbling into the transept with the Archdeacon in her wake, bumbling half formed apologies at her intrusion. Lilith dropped to her knees before Xavier and the Apostle, prostrating before them.
“Xavier… Bishop. I think I made a mistake.”